A/N: Soo...after a hellsih first term of my last year, I spent a Christmas break catching up with my social life. Working on and off on this chapter, I've finally deemed it...agreeable.
I'm terribly sorry for the delay, but updating has never been my strong forte. I hope not too many have left the story and lost their hopes of it...
Anyway, THANK YOU so MUCH for all the positive response this story has, so far, provoked! I'm really really glad you like and appreciate it; it means a lot to me as a writer!
Well, that said...let's get on with it! I'm so nervous about this chapter that seriously, you have nooo idea...
SPEAKING OF GRATITUDE.
Several weeks ago, months really, I fell ill. I was pretty damn sick for well over 3 weeks, and was bored out of my scull/angsty/pissy and just overall miserable. And I really wanted to finish SWAK but had no drive.
I was bestowed with an awesome motivator though, which probably contributed to this being posted faster than I thought it would (yes, it might've taken longer; it is possible).
the lovely kokoronagomu sent me a wonderful piece of art made by the equally awesome LordRandallsLady. The piece is of a dragon, and in its original form it is stunning, but as manipulated by kokoronagomu it looks almost exactly like how I personally imagined the painting of Kenshin in dragon-form would look like.
Here is the link to the original piece: http(:)(double slash)lordrandallslady(dot)deviantart(dot)com(slash)art(slash)Celestial - Dragon - 120825875
And here's to the manipulated piece: http(:)(double slash)lordrandallslady(dot)deviantart(dot)com(slash)art(slash)Red - Dragon - quot - Kenshin - quot - 137770182
So really, this chapter can't be anything other than dedicated to kokoronagomu and LordRandallsLady. Thank you! I really do hope you will enjoy this update!
(I apologise for any typos/grammar errors. I remind you of the fact English still isn't my first language! lol. Working on getting tot hat level though...)
She was quite horrified to realize that something suspiciously like a routine had snuck up on her this last week, after finding her painting was actually a sealed, humanoid dragon with mental issues. At first she had determinedly tried to ignore the problem, vainly hoping it might go away, but it seemed that the only difference not acknowledging her situation made, was to slowly make her used to it – it being the presence of a rather persistent, supernatural, fantasy creature of folklore.
She supposed it really began the night when she had fallen asleep in his arms, after he had gone conveniently missing at Sano's return.
She woke up that morning, to soft caresses and warmth only another body could provide. It should've made her snap awake and bolt for freedom instantly, but instead sleep left her slowly; leaving her mind fuzzy and her muscles lax. She figured she could deal with him as soon as she'd gathered enough energy to do just that, and so another second or two wouldn't really do any harm; just prepare her better for the confrontation.
But by the time she had properly woken, he was nowhere to be seen.
Before she could remember that she was supposed to be pleased with his absence, she had felt momentarily disappointed (she told herself that surely, it was because he'd left before she'd gotten a chance to properly yell at him) and had wondered, for a moment, if he hadn't promised her to always stay by her side, and if he had, why wasn't he?
(She blamed that lapse of mental health on the rather unusual situation she had found herself in, and reasoned she was probably being influenced in one way or another by her dragon. She knew close to nothing of magic, after all, so it might as well be the cause to the sudden unsettling thoughts and feelings fluttering through her mind and heart.)
The day which had started out so blissfully without his presence was starting to turn out quite eerie. She was slowly coming to suspect he hadn't left her side at all. Her sight, maybe, but he could do magic, right? Would he be able to make himself invisible then? The thought of what he could do scared her a bit, thus the immediate suspicion of his meddling whenever her heart skipped a beat.
But it took her a while more to accept that the warm brushes against her exposed skin – neck, wrists, ankles, face – were too substantial to be the result of a breeze, and somehow, she knew he was there.
In a fit of agitation, her strikes became just that much more forceful; her bokken singing as it cut through the air. Imagining him as a target only served her well the first couple of strikes, before she'd managed to picture him moving with a blade; golden eyes narrow in ruthless concentration and blood-red hair lashing out like a whip as he moved with that inhuman speed –
---and as he neared his features blurred, becoming mere colors. His hair blood, eyes gold, hakama bones and gi a stormy night of blue. Stark in the blackness, but gone, in the wink of an eye. Where is he? Breath heavy, it must be cold. Moist clouds emit; panting. The grip of the sword is weak, yet it had never been clutched so hard in these hands. Shaking, the world spins. Left, right, behind; where?!
The smells; smoke, blood, death---
Demon; he came from the front, head on. Eye to eye.
Honor, he allowed his opponent to face death before it struck. But the terror---
---And in that moment she felt the hot brush of lips against her temple as she realized she had dropped her bokken to the ground where she knelt, hugging herself and crying in such fright she had not known since her father's death.
Really, it sounded crazy, even as she had first considered it, but as the days had passed, she sensed something she could only identify as him in the gusts of winds, warmth of the sun or caress of the rain. That day, when her imagination her fled to such a vivid place (why had it felt so real? It had taken several cups of tea before she could feel her fingers properly!) she could only assume he was hiding – from Sano and Yahiko, from her students and the townspeople (maybe even herself?) – as she'd surrounded herself with them in fear of being alone with his presence (it haunted her still, like no other horror story ever told to her as a child). But she'd wanted answers, to more than just his suddenly (at least visually) evasive behavior. He'd even invaded her dreams!
(And surely mind, too, after that frightful experience. Maybe he didn't like how she'd imagined beating him into submission, and tried to get back at her? No, that wasn't it, was it? Too many questions!)
Granted, in the mornings, when the last tendrils of sleep and his unwavering presence slipped away from her grasp the only things she could remember were sensations. Feelings.
She'd tried to link scenarios to what she could recall; the frustration, the momentarily fright upon his first invasion of her dreams (barren that time in the dojo). The wariness and the mounting curiosity. He knew so much of her, but during the night, she suspected he was sharing something (and it wasn't blood and death and fright either). At least, it was enough to make her react, however subconscious it might be. How else could she wake up with a frown, as if she'd just been bantering with someone incredibly infuriating? Or smile, shyly, as if a blunt compliment had made her blush.
Again she reminded herself of the theory of possible manipulation. He seemed so powerful, at least by her own measures, so why shouldn't he be able to bend a human's fickle spirit to his will?
It sickened her, but was a more comforting thought than admitting what her pounding heart meant, or why her cheeks coloured, despite the obvious danger he presented. It really couldn't be her, not on her own free will. No, it was all him.
That, or she was going out of her mind. With the way he seemed to push his way into it, she entertained the notion of her moving out of her own mind, only to have him move in. Somehow, that brought more amusement from her tormentor than she was willing to provide. Although, the branch snapping in the sudden violent gust of wind to land conveniently on Yahiko's head as he badmouthed her cooking made her laugh whether she liked it or not.
However, she wanted answers! Answers to questions she'd had time to form as the days went by, but with which she'd had some trouble posing.
The first time she tried to question him, it went with little success. When she had gone to bed the very same day he'd made his presence known, she had stayed awake; determined to question him (and not because she'd still been scared by the vivid…something she'd seen in the dojo) the moment he showed up in the form of something more solid than air, heat or whatever element suited his intentions. Why she had been so sure he would come was something she didn't bother to wonder about anymore – as with so many other things where he was concerned – but as she'd laid there the day had slowly caught up with her.
Tense, stressed and jumpy as she'd been, it had made her more tired than she had anticipated so when he finally did show himself, she was already half-asleep. The gentle way he'd eased her onto his lap and proceeded to caress her back and arms had made staying awake a rather impossible, and unwanted, notion (she didn't dwell on the fact that it had melted the icy chill of terror that had settled in her stomach as well).
She'd figured she could question him later and had promptly fallen asleep.
Almost a week later, Kaoru was fighting hard not to swing her bokken around in an attempt to somehow cut through the space he occupied and hope to harm him with whatever she could.
Somehow, he had successfully avoided any confrontation she could've planned by only making himself physically present when she was on the verge of sleep (it didn't matter how long she tried to stay awake, or how well she thought she was acting when she pretended to fall asleep; he made no exceptions). So when she awoke, it was to the feel of fingers combing through her hair, tracing her jaw or nose and hands caressing her curves in a sensually indecent way that left her biting back a moan. But before she could find it in herself to protest, he would leave with a soft kiss on the top of her head and remain hidden the rest of the day. It was unsettling and comforting at the same time, leaving her more than a little confused. It was routine and she had realized (even as the fright of him rushing towards her with a sharpened blade faded completely), on some level even accepted, that he was keeping his promise and staying by her side.
Now, however, she had had enough. Ever since she had told Sano about him – her Dragon – both Yahiko and that rooster-head had never left her alone both at the same time. Sano was gone the most, supposedly looking into whatever cults or religious fanatics that could be interested in her painting and who knew she'd had it in her possession. She suspected he was collecting information – half of the time. The rest, she assumed he spent gambling, drinking or catching up with old friends he hadn't really been in contact with since he settled down in her dojo as an ex-fighter for hire.
Yahiko, the little brat, did his share of snooping as well. When she had forbidden him, quite violently, to have anything to do with anyone Sano might go to he'd started picking up gossip at the Akabeko. She knew nothing he heard would be of much help, but encouraged him if only to keep him out of trouble. It did, sadly, result in a lot more night-shifts on his part and she had tried to talk him out of it – with bokken and all – but relented when he'd shown no sign on giving in. She reasoned it was his pride coming to play; finally getting the chance to protect someone rather than to be protected.
What more, the two had proved to be much more capable of cooperating than she'd given them credit for. There was not a moment she was alone – her dragon excluded – in the dojo or in town. Honestly, she was grateful; not only for their concerns, but for the support they unknowingly provided whenever a breeze curled too well around her neck or when raindrops snuck underneath even her thickest clothing (she was becoming increasingly paranoid, that was for sure). It had freaked her out so much the first few days she was glad she'd had someone around who wasn't trying to magically grope her and know that was all he could do for the moment.
But now she'd had time to do some thinking, and if he didn't come out from his hiding she would not be held responsible for her actions.
"Come out, you coward," she growled, letting her glare flicker around the room in search for something to glare at. Only shadows and walls, damn him! "You coward! Do you realize how hard it was to convince them I needed a few hours alone after a week in constant male-only company?! Show yourself, Dragon!"
What felt suspiciously like a breathy chuckle came with the gust of wind snuck through the sliding door of her bedroom and ruffled her hair. About to snap another insult at the evasive dragon, she only had time to blink before he was sitting right before her, reaching out to grab the leg of her hakama and pull down hard enough for her to fall into an awkward seated position on the floor.
"You haven't escaped your male company yet, little one," he purred, golden eyes hooded as he observed her shocked expression; blue eyes wide and mouth hanging open. She hadn't been prepared, had almost forgotten how dangerously attractive he was, and his abrupt appearance slowed time as it seemed to her do with her thoughts.
Shaking her head, she tried to regain her previous agitation and shut her mouth with a snap before narrowing her eyes into a reinforced glare. "Bastard," she snapped, repositioning herself into a more comfortable sitting arrangement, her movements stiff from embarrassment. She was unable to resist looking away no matter how brave she wanted to appear, when he flashed her a smirk she had almost forgotten.
"I believe you have some questions for me, my sweet, yes?" he continued with a silky purr, as if she hadn't spoken. A bit disappointed that she hadn't had the chance to steer the conversation (she really wanted to scream and demand and intimidate but it would seem she'd need to take a different approach).
"Damn straight!" she hissed, leaning forward to poke his chest hard with her finger, repeatedly. "Who are you? Or rather, who the hell do you think you are?! Where did you come from? Why are you following me? How do you become invisible? Is it magic? What more can you do that I'm not aware of? And why the hell are you sleeping with me?!"
Silence followed, and taking a deep breath as she paused in her questioning, it only took his amused chuckle and suggestively raised brow to realize what her last question had implied. Hitting him hard on his chest, hoping it was at least uncomfortable, she huffed in embarrassment. "Not like that you pervert! And answer my questions dammit!"
"I apologize," he said, taking a hold of her fist and grinning at her red face and puffed out cheeks. Her lips were drawn into a most delicious pout and he took a moment to simply observe before continuing. "I see you have gathered quite a few questions during the time I've given you to find them. I will answer them, little one, to the best of my ability."
"The best of your ability?!" she repeated, suspiciously. She wanted straight answers; she certainly deserved it! He seemed to understand her thoughts (surely her tone of voice had clued him in; she'd used her best what-the-hell-are-you-saying voice that made Sano go as pale as newly cleaned sheets) as he replied with a lopsided grin and twinkling, golden eyes. "You see, Kaoru, my sweet; I can only reply to what you ask. It means that you will have to be specific, since I am unable to elaborate without your inquiring. So it would be wise to think carefully about your question, wouldn't you say?"
"Alright," she said, already knowing what her first question would be. "Why must your answer be limited to my question?"
As he chuckled, she became aware of her hand still caught in his as his thumb made gentle strokes on her skin. Blushing, she tugged her hand in an attempt to get away, but gave it up when his grip only seemed to tighten.
"Hm, you catch on quick, my sweet," he noted in a voice that could only be used to deliver a compliment, so she gave up on trying to detect any sarcasm as he seemed to quiet down in order to think. Titling his head, he continued. "Because I am still partly sealed, and the remaining seal's magic prevents me from giving you any information about myself that you do not request."
"But I thought you were freed when you escaped the painting? And why is the magic preventing you from giving me 'information about yourself without me inquiring'?" she countered only moments after he had given his first reply, growing more excited as it seemed he would be truthful and she would finally get the answers she needed.
"You have freed me from the prison of the painting, but the seal placed on me is still, in some ways, intact. In order for it to be completely broken, you, the one who broke the first barrier, must find it in yourself to accept me. You cannot do that without knowledge of who I am; what I am. The seal merely prevents me from…cheating, if you will," he stated, calmly. She frowned at this new piece of information, filing it away for later consideration.
"Before you were sealed," she began, feeling him tense slightly through his grip of her hand, "where did you…live?"
"Ah," he sighed, lowering her hand to rest in his lap and moving his free hand to cover it as well. "I lived in the realm of spirits."
He grinned at her displeased frown, but she quickly continued; determined to squeeze as much information from him before anything could interrupt. "So there's another realm? Another world? What more lives there? How long has it existed?"
"The realm of spirits holds almost any fictional creature you have encountered in scrolls, paintings, tales and legends," he answered after a few moments of silence, the steely, cold quality of his golden eyes softening with a slight hint of what she thought could be called nostalgia. She didn't interrupt, holding her breath for a moment, before realizing what she was doing and letting out an annoyed huff. He didn't seem to notice.
"The realm itself has only existed for a few thousand years, because before we faded into history and legends, it wasn't necessary. Most the creatures which you name mythical, which you claim does not exist, used to live alongside humans from the beginning of time. But humans are cruel creatures; countless of wars, endless hatred and envy was endured before finally, there was a way to end it all. The Revolution. The realm of spirits was created and we disappeared from this battered, sullied realm to never return to human's side again."
His tale was fascinating, if a bit…unsettling. He told it with a smooth, quiet voice that had made her catch herself from leaning in closer, and she'd known, somehow, that it was all true. She could tell there was a lot missing though, but before she sought to complete this tale, she needed to confirm her suspicions. "You said you couldn't elaborate, that I had to ask the right question to get the specific answer, but wasn't what you just told me elaborating?"
"You're not only beautiful, my little Kaoru, but bright as well," he praised, reaching up to catch her chin between his fingers and caress her jaw with his thumb. "It is true that I cannot give up certain information unless you ask the correct question, but that only concerns information about me specifically."
"Oh," she breathed as she understood, blushing at his intimate hold. Before she could free herself he let his hand drop, and she swallowed nervously before moving on. "What happened during the Revolution you spoke of? Did you have a part in it?"
"The Revolution was the final war against humankind and was led by the now leading clan of the realm of spirits. It lasted for a century; it was dark, bloody years that cost more lives than you can ever imagine. Cruelty was at its peak; it was violent and left wounds and scars that, even now, have not completely healed. I was part of the clan that led our side to victory."
She noted he seemed reluctant to speak more of it, but the tilt of his lips and gleam in his eyes told her he knew she wouldn't stop there. Taking a deep breath, silently deciding to freak out about all this at a later date, she pushed on.
"What did you do to bring about victory? What happened to you after the Revolution? How did you get yourself sealed?"
Reaching out for her, she was placed sideways in his lap before she could react. When she realized her position, she immediately startled to struggle against his grip; resulting in a very uncomfortable experience. He'd turned her limbs into heavy, unresponsive lumps of flesh again; seemingly numbing everything but her face just as he'd done a week ago.
"Bastard! Release me!" she hissed, letting loose a string of curses that would've made Sano proud as he tucked her head underneath his chin and sighed. "Kaoru," he began, voice steely and managing to keep her silent long enough to continue. "I wish you had waited to inquire about that part of my past, the darkest yet, but I am…obliged…to reply. In return, however, I will keep you from even considering escaping my hold, especially after that….unfortunate…incident in the dojo."
She swallowed nervously, not knowing what to say (he'd just acknowledged something she'd rather forget, but even as she felt the desire to do so she knew it was foolish), but was spared any awkward silence as he continued.
"In order for victory to be obtained, I had joined fellow kinsmen to lead our forces from the shadows. In your kind's terms, I would be most correctly named an assassin. I was good at what I did, and killed countless mages on the humans' side. It eventually led to our victory, since humans were at a vast disadvantage without mages and their magic for their aid. As for what happened to me afterwards…" he trailed off, taking a deep breath and scenting the slight fear sullying her scent. She had asked; he had to continue. The magic burned along his veins, urging him on even as he searched for ways of evasion. "After the revolution I was already sealed. It was at the very end of the Revolution that a mage sneaked up on me and imprisoned me in a piece of paper."
At his smug grin, despite how small, she knew there was more to it. She hesitated for a moment, before deciding she could let it be for now. His incredible tales demanded details, but there was still so much left to ask. Vainly trying to justify her choice of letting him get away for now, she hastily moved on in hopes of escaping her conscience. (Assassin? Was that what she'd witnessed?)
Racking her brain for a question not involving that part of his past (she wasn't sure she was ready to even hear it now, she realized with a frown), it slid past her lips before she could consider it properly.
"What's your name?"
He stilled, and she suddenly became aware of how much motion he usually seems to employ; deep, slow breathing, caresses and subtle shifting. Trying to ignore that particular observation, she hurriedly tried to defend herself – she felt so stupid for not having asked him the first thing she did. It was what you normally do, right? Then again, this was anything but normal.
"I mean, I can't keep calling you, 'you' or-or- 'dragon' and…and stuff, right?" she stuttered, staring stubbornly at his collarbone even as she felt his eyes roaming her face. "So, what's your name?"
Silence, then she felt him relax as another of those warm chuckles made her flush. "You already know one of my names, Kaoru," he said, voice low and his fingers back to caressing the back of her hands.
"Oh…," was all she could say, busy trying to remember what other than Dragon she'd ever used to address him. Then she recalled; the story. "Battousai?"
"Mm, correct. Although, I suppose it is more of a title than a name. But I have been called that for centuries; one grows quite attached to it," he explained, taking a hold of her chin as he spoke and titling her face upwards. She frowned, but met his eyes. The glint of amusement there, coupled with that smile, made her stomach do a weird flip. Strange, she hadn't been sick in quite a while. Maybe it was time again for a cold.
She barely noticed as he leaned down to whisper, as if sharing a secret, but she quickly stiffened as she felt his inhumanly warm breath skim across her skin. "I think I can grow used to being 'your Dragon' as well, my sweet. In fact, I think it is preferable."
He nipped her ear.
She squeaked, hitting him hard on his shoulder in retribution, but she hardly had time to process the fact that the feeling was back in her previously numb limbs before he was gone. Just like that. Again, dammit!
Then she heard him.
"Kaoru! We're back! You okay?"
She wasn't sure if she should thank Sano for his timing, or take out her frustrations on his thick scull.
It couldn't really be described as "nothingness", for there was an echo of something that seemed to whisper of places and thoughts and stories in this space. It was grey, with a sort of milky mist filling the emptiness with its thick substance. It was the only, visible, tangible notion that didn't give off a not really there, as if it was nothing more than an image in your head. Even so, the mist was neither cold, nor hot. Not even wet, as mist should be. It just didn't feel as anything at all.
It was like it was divided into different illusions.
Things you see, things you hear, things you think.
It was the things missing that made it so wrong.
No taste, no smell, no feel.
You didn't breathe here, you didn't live here. That's what you'd realize, hovering in the mist trying to find an up, a down, a side; an angle, a direction. No order, but no chaos. It was too empty for it to be incomprehensible, just as it was too empty to be just as intimidating. A strange space – for it couldn't qualify as a place, however comforting the idea of a location would be – with so many contradictions, for such little…content?
The lulling sound of stories, not voices – of thoughts, not conversations – bid you to move. Which way? There is no way. Walk? There is no ground!
But you cannot get lost, for this space, this vast nothingness that is something, leads you everywhere.
And, if you know where you want to go, the question of how to get there is irrelevant.
You're already there.
He watched her as she kicked up a racket; running to meet her…friends. For a few moments, he observed her provoke them with her own frustration and flaring temper, amused by the fighting that ensued. She was a fascinating creature, as he'd come to realize long before his release. Caught in that space in between, her soft voice had penetrated any and all shields of magic surrounding him. Dragon, she'd called him. It had echoed around him, given him a direction as she'd continued to speak.
Her blue eyes had been the first to fill his sight in decades. A sharp, almost painfully beautiful contrast to the indefinable grey that had been his prison. Next came her smile, first more of a feeling rather than tangible image. But oh, her lips were like the petals of roses. He couldn't have denied the want, the need, as he'd been drawn to her, any more than he could've unlocked the shackles wound around his beastly form in thick tendrils of dark magic.
Focusing on her, he'd been able to make out her surroundings, even if it had been more like background noise. And as her stories grew from whispers to the pleasant, strong string of words he was now privy to hearing inches from his face, while smell and touch and feeling rushed over him, he had known.
And he was never letting her go.
A/N: Like we didn't already know that, Mr Dragon you! XD Anyway, a lot of stuff happened in this chapter. It's shorter than the others, sadly, but I wasn't able to squeeze more into it without it feeling forced. I hope you don't mind...
Anyway, reason why I'm so bloody nervous about this update? Because I'm really not all that pleased with how it came out. The idea with the seal seems so silly when written down XD LOL.
Oh well, it's just to crash or burn now isn't it? Please review! :)